Rabbi Paul J Jacobson
Temple Avodat Shalom
River Edge, New Jersey
October 17, 2014
Taking a Stand
Rabbi Naomi Levy tells the story of a woman named Michelle. She writes:
I walked to the front door of the synagogue…and there stood a woman with two black eyes hidden behind her dark sunglasses, a broken nose, bruises everywhere. I held Michelle’s arm and led her to my study. She could barely walk. I was mortified. I had seen her just the week before at Sabbath services. Now, as she sat in my study, I could hardly believe this was the same person. Not knowing how to begin, I waited for her to speak, but she refused to look my way.
She broke the silence with one word: “Why?”
I waited for more. And slowly she began to speak.
On the afternoon before Yom Kippur, Michelle had showered and dressed in her holiday clothes. She was on her way to a festive meal with her best friend. Afterward the two of them were going to come to synagogue to begin the daylong fast. She picked up her keys, locked the door to her apartment and walked toward her car. Suddenly a man came up from behind and grabbed her. When she resisted, he punched her in the face, knocked her to the floor, and beat her. Then he picked Michelle up, opened the trunk of her car, threw her in, and slammed it shut. The engine started to roar, and soon the car was moving. It was pitch-black in that trunk and Michelle was terrified. Her entire body shook in fear….All she could do in the blinding darkness was to say to herself over and over again, “I want to live! I want to live!” The car stopped. The trunk opened, her eyes were assaulted by the stinging sunlight. He dragged her into the backseat. He raped her. And then he let her go….
Michelle was overwhelmed by so many horrible feelings. She felt betrayed and abandoned, violated and petrified, angry and dirty and ashamed and alone. She was silent again for a long while…
Rabbi Levy further relates how this horrific, harrowing attack left Michelle wondering how she could have the strength to go on. There are absolutely no words for what Michelle endured, for the inexcusable way in which she suffered. And whether in a painful episode like Michelle’s, or in the context of an abusive relationship at home, violence against women remains a problem, a significant problem – throughout the world, throughout the United States, and even here, at home, in New Jersey.
In 2012, in New Jersey alone, over 65,000 incidents of domestic violence were reported to the police, and while the statistics represent a 7% decrease from 2011, the number is still startling. Females were victims in 75% of all domestic violence offenses, 14% of the cases, one in seven, occurred where “partners” were merely dating one another. Incidents of domestic violence involving a gun increased by 5%, 45% of domestic cases involved weapons, and in 92% of those cases, hands, fists, and feet were the weapon of choice.
In the United States, more than 12 million women and men, an estimated 24 people per minute, are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner. 29% of women and 10% of men have experienced rape, physical violence, and or stalking. Nearly half of all women and men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Aware of the statistics, learning of incidents of violence like in the recent case of former Baltimore Ravens’ player Ray Rice attacking his girlfriend, watching television or online media, listening to the radio, reading newspapers, too often we may turn a blind eye, and say, “It doesn’t happen here. It’s not our business.”
But violence does happen here. Violence continues to happen here and to happen all around us. As painful as it is for us to do so, we might need to acknowledge that we know someone who is presently in an abusive relationship. We might need to acknowledge that we know someone who has been a victim of a violent attack. We might even need to acknowledge that we are that person, that we need help, and that we can feel empowered to leave a violent relationship. There are many resources that offer assistance, many people – including friends and community – who will help by listening to stories and by offering guidance.
Statistics can sometimes create a distant feeling within us. But when we think of the prevalence of violence in our society, and we think of our wives, our girlfriends, our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters, we recognise just how near an issue this is to our hearts. Most often, women are most at risk from men they know – husbands, boyfriends, fathers, relatives, employers and caregivers.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which involved from the first day of Unity observed in October 1981 by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The intent was to connect battered women’s advocates across the nation working to end violence against women and their children.
In many cases, efforts to eradicate all forms of violence must begin with men. One such international effort is the White Ribbon Campaign. On the afternoon of 6 December 1989, a man walked into the Ecole Polytechnique University in Montreal and massacred 14 of his female classmates. His actions traumatized a nation and brought the issue of violence against women to the forefront of their collective consciousness. Two years later a handful of men in Toronto decided they had a responsibility to speak out about and work to stop, men's violence against women. As a result, the White Ribbon Campaign in Canada became an annual awareness-raising event held between 25 November and 6 December. In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly declared 25 November as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, with a white ribbon as its iconic symbol.
The White Ribbon Campaign is now the largest global male-led movement to stop men’s violence against women. The White Ribbon Campaign requires men to say, “I swear never to commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women,” is a positive way to get involved. This is a men’s issue, because as community leaders and decision-makers, men can and must play a key role in helping to stop violence against women. It is a men’s issue because men can speak out and step in when male friends and relatives insult or attack women. It is a men’s issue because a minority of men treat women and girls with contempt and violence, and it is up to the majority of men to create a culture in which this is unacceptable.
Change begins with us and as men we have an obligation to speak out. More importantly, we have an obligation to listen, to learn more about this problem, and if a woman trusts us enough to tell us her story, to listen and affirm her experience, to be non-judgmental, supportive, and if she requests, to enable her to obtain the help she seeks. We need to learn why men learn violence as a way of expressing their masculinity. We need to challenge sexist language and jokes that degrade women – to challenge other men, to let them know that derogatory comments are “not on.” If we ourselves have committed an act of violence, we need to get help. We need to be aware of sexual harassment in our workplaces and our schools, and dedicate our attention, like at Mitzvah Day to providing support for services like safe houses, rape crisis centers, counseling services, and legal aid clinics, like the Center for Hope and Safety in Hackensack, and Project SARAH, an organization dedicated to stopping abusive relationships at home. The White Ribbon Foundation explains, “We must teach our children, by example, that all forms of violence are unacceptable; that for boys to become men, they do not need to control or dominate women, men, or children.”
For each person who pledges never to commit or condone an act of violence against a woman, we are making strides in the right direction, strides that will help us to end the feelings of betrayal, abandonment, fear, and shame, strides that will help us put an end to violence. We have a duty – to be loving, and gentle, supportive and compassionate. And we have a duty – to speak out, to let our voices be heard. For we cannot ever afford to remain silent while others around us are suffering.